Gruevski set to remain at helm in Macedonia poll

By bne IntelliNews June 3, 2011

Andrew MacDowall in Skopje -

Macedonia's government looks set to be re-elected in the early election on Sunday, June 5. The nationalist VMRO-DPMNE, led by controversial Prime Minister Nikola Gruevski, continues to top polls, with the opposition Social Democrats (SDSM) trailing. Among ethnic Albanians, the VMRO-DPMNE's sometime junior coalition partner, the Democratic Union for Integration (DUI), led by former guerrillas, has the lead over its rivals.

While exact polling figures vary rather widely, unless there is a significant upset the election is likely to reinforce the position of the youthful Gruevski, PM since 2006, as Macedonia's dominant political personality. A victory would be both a vote of confidence in the PM and a thumbs-down to the opposition, which may rue pushing for an early poll after it launched a boycott of parliament in protest at Gruevski's alleged authoritarianism in January.

There are 123 seats up for grabs on Sunday, 20 in each of six domestic multi-member districts, and three voted for, for the first time, by the sizeable Macedonian diaspora. Currently, the VMRO-DPMNE and its many smaller electoral partners, plus the DUI, have 81 seats in the current 120-seat parliament.

Polls have forecast that the VMRO-DPMNE could win between 42 and 58 seats and the SDSM from 29 to 42, with the discrepancy due to poor survey techniques and the pollsters' political interests, according a report by Balkan Insight. Usually, the winning party will go into coalition with the largest Albanian parliamentary group. Some polls, however, are more reliable than others, and an apparently sound one carried out between May 26 and 28 by Skopje's Institute for Democracy and backed by other would give the VMRO-DPMNE 48 seats and the DUI 16, against the SDSM's 37 and the DPA's nine, with various smaller parties from both the Macedonian and Albanian communities making up the difference.

While 47.1% of those polled claimed to be undecided, it is thought that many have in fact made their minds up but are reluctant to tell the pollsters, or that they will not vote anyway. While the SDSM is making a last-minute pitch to floating voters, the consensus is that Gruevski and his partners are in pole position, as polls have consistently put them ahead.

Media feud

The vote was called a year earlier than legally necessary after bitter political disputes led to an opposition walk-out in January. The boycott was triggered by a police raid on leading Macedonian television station A1 in November, which led to the freezing of its accounts and those of a publishing house which issues three well-known newspapers, on the grounds of tax fraud. The media are all owned by Velija Ramkovski, a local tycoon previously close to Gruevski but who fell out with the PM several years ago. The TV station and newspapers were critical of Gruevski, and the opposition accused him of effectively trying to censor them, and hence called the boycott.

While the government insisted it had the majority, poll lead and moral mandate to continue ruling, the political poll took its toll on Macedonia's international image and so it agreed to call an early election as the opposition demanded. Weeks of squabbling over changes to the electoral law then saw the date pushed back.

If Gruevski does indeed win, the election will be the latest in a line of notable victories for the PM, suggesting he has confounded the Macedonian political pendulum that had previously seen incumbents turfed out after a single term. He won the 2006 and 2008 elections - in the latter poll, also called early, humiliating the Social Democrats - as well as sweeping the board at the 2009 local elections, and seeing the VMRO-DPMNE-backed candidate, Gjorge Ivanov, installed as president the same year.

A win would also show that Gruevski still enjoys widespread, despite the distinctly fishy Ramkovski affair. One reason for his popularity is his relatively tough line on the "name dispute" with Greece. Athens has blocked Macedonia's Nato membership and EU accession process on the grounds that it objects to the title "Republic of Macedonia," claiming that it suggests Skopje has designs on the Greek region of Macedonia. Forecasting organisation Business Monitor International and a range of Greek commentators have stated that Gruevski's re-election would make a settlement in the near term unlikely.

What remains to be seen is whether the incoming government pushes on with stalled economic and administrative reforms demanded by the EU. Gruevski built up considerable goodwill internationally by making progress on these fronts in the early years of his administration, but enthusiasm seems to have waned since the global recession knocked Macedonia's small, open economy sideways, and Athens put the brakes on accession.

Instead, attention has focused on the rather grandiose Skopje 2014 project, either a grand plan to overhaul the slightly scruffy capital and get the economy moving, or an expensive and nationalist-inspired vote-buying exercise that has been speeded up in the run-up to the election, depending on whom one asks. The project includes a monument to Alexander the Great, much to the annoyance of the Greeks.

The SDSM, for its part, will still be hoping to scrape a win, but will probably settle for a clear sign that it has recovered from its 2008-2009 low. A good performance by prime ministerial candidate Radmina Sekerinska and some of its rising stars might suggest that the party could face a future without its talismanic leader, Branko Crvenkovski. Importantly, an increased parliamentary presence could increase its ability to hold the government to account.

Macedonian daily Utrinski Vesnik has labelled the campaign the nastiest in Macedonia's history, with a number of case of vandalism on party offices and perceived threats against candidates. Certainly, divisions between the opposition and government are bitter, but almost all the incidents have been minor. Most importantly, there has been little sign of the ethnic violence that has scarred previous campaigns, and getting through the vote and the post-election period without communal tensions boiling over would be a sign of Macedonia's progress since the 2001 conflict.

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